A Law of Their Own
Heath, Thomas, Leslie, Connie, Newsweek
ONE DAY LAST MONTH WICHITA DIStrict Attorney Nola Foulston looked at her copy of the Daily Record, a trade newspaper, and was stunned to read that she had been subpoenaed. She was ordered to appear in District Court and produce her license to practice law. If she failed to appear, the sheriff would be directed to arrest her. Her alleged crime: holding public office. The subpoena was an unofficial document drafted and filed by a local man who had been charged with a misdemeanor for burning trash without a permit. Angered by the government interference, he joined a growing number of disgruntled Americans who think they've found a better arbiter of justice. He went to a "Common Law court," one of the latest incarnations of the extremist right. Foulston ignored the subpoena. "I don't practice in false courts," she says.
But they're growing. Common Law courts have sprung up in at least 11 states in the farm belt and the West over the last year, organized by a cross section of people bent on directly challenging government. In living rooms, bingo halls and convention centers, dozens gather weekly to form juries, present evidence and issue kangaroo-court indictments, liens, arrest warrants--and even death sentences. None of this has the force of law.
The movement is based on a mixture of crackpot conspiracy theories and bizarre interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, the Bible and the Magna Charta. In brief, its leaders preach that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "bank holiday" edict of 1933, which temporarily shut down the nation's banks, stripped the country of its safeguards against tyranny. "When you get to digging into what's going on today, you have a government operating outside the Constitution," says David Schechter, a court organizer.
Court members keep in touch on the Internet, swapping information, posting meetings and organizing court sessions. They also vent their views in a Texas magazine called the AntiShyster. Mostly white men form Common Law courts; many come from the militia movement. Some are closely aligned with white-supremacy and anti-Jewish groups. "The basic idea behind the movement," says University of Oregon history professor Richard Brown, "is 'popular sovereignty,' that people are above the law. These people are alienated from the legal system. …